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Take Note: Prof. Lee Ann Banaszak on creating principles to guide Gov. Tom Wolf in redistricting

A photo of Dr. Lee Ann Banaszak
Min Xian
Dr. Lee Ann Banaszak, head of the Department of Political Science at Penn State and a member of the Pennsylvania Redistricting Advisory Council in 2021.

Dr. Lee Ann Banaszak is the head of the Department of Political Science at Penn State and a member of the Pennsylvania Redistricting Advisory Council in 2021.

She said sticking with redistricting principles that have broad support from Pennsylvania citizens across the partisan divide improves the process of redistricting, which is equally important as having a fair outcome. Banaszak spoke with WPSU's Min Xian.

Here's the conversation:

Min Xian: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I’m Min Xian.

Politicians in Pennsylvania are in the process of creating new Congressional and state legislative district maps. While most people would say they want fair maps that are drawn in a transparent manner, many do not picture what the process should look like in the same way.

Dr. Lee Ann Banaszak has been an advocate for redistricting reform. Banaszak is the head of the Department of Political Science at Penn State and professor of political science and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

Lee Ann Banaszak, welcome to Take Note.

Lee Ann Banaszak: Thank you.

Min Xian: In 2021, you were named by Governor Tom Wolf to the Pennsylvania Redistricting Advisory Council, along with five other experts. What was the task of the council?

Lee Ann Banaszak: So in thinking about the drawing of congressional maps, about which Governor Wolf has some influence in terms of veto power, he was interested in developing principles by which he should judge the map. And so our job as the Advisory Council was not to think about any particular map, but rather to develop the principles that make a good map.

Min Xian: And what makes developing those principles to guide the governor meaningful to you, as you said, you're not looking at any particular map to provide evaluation, but developing the principle itself, what makes that meaningful to you in your work?

Lee Ann Banaszak: So prior to this, I had served on the Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission. And in doing that, the discussion surrounding that commission was really to examine the redistricting process. And to come up with an understanding of how citizens of Pennsylvania felt about the process. So we did a number of public hearings, and we had done a number of surveys. And one of the most important things is that there's really quite a lot of agreement, even across partisan lines on what constitutes a good process for redistricting.

And so I was really pleased when Governor Wolf invited me to participate in the Redistricting Advisory Council, because it was a chance to put into – to make concrete the process of really focusing on the principles of a good redistricting process.

Min Xian: In the final recommendations that the council made to the governor, there are three sets of principles that the council outlined, so I want to talk about them. The first set are legal principles drawn on settled federal and state requirements to serve as a minimum floor to protect against improper maps. And that creates a baseline for how to go about drawing the maps, right?

Lee Ann Banaszak: That is correct. So the Pennsylvania Constitution lays out certain principles by which we should be drawing maps in Pennsylvania, and those include compactness, so thinking about this shape of the district and not drawing districts that are outrageously spread out or connected by small pieces of a road. Contiguity – so that all of our districts should be together. And then it is also minimizing the jurisdictional splits. So we have city boundaries, we have county boundaries, we have school district boundaries as well. And all of these represent interests that need to be represented in one way. So it's not possible never to split those, but really to minimize those splits.

In addition, there are principles that are at the federal level. And those include a particular level of equal population to make sure that no individual person is disadvantaged by having less of a vote than another. And then, of course, our representation through the Voting Rights Act, including kind of consideration of the Voting Rights Act in the discussion of the maps.

Min Xian: The second set of the principles are principles of representation, which some may argue would be the most crucial goal in redistricting, which is fair and equal representation. What did the council say about achieving that goal?

Lee Ann Banaszak: So there are really three parts to that. The first, [and] in my mind, one of the most important, is a sense of partisan fairness or partisan proportionality. So not diluting a party vote by drawing the district so some parties are advantaged over others. If there's a vote for Congress, which there is every two years, then the congressional representation from Pennsylvania should reflect that vote in some manner.

To do that, it's also important to have some competitive districts so that as voters change their mind that it can be reflected. So if all of the districts are what we consider safe districts, then if the partisan vote changes, then nothing changes in the representation.

And finally, a really important principle as well is representing communities of interest. So the state of Pennsylvania is a diverse state, we have urban areas, we have very rural areas, and really trying to make sure that where those communities exist, that we don't unnecessarily split them apart, which is the term for that is cracking. And when you split those communities apart, then those communities have less of a voice, it's less possible for them to really have influence on their representation.

Min Xian: Very critical principles, indeed. And then finally, the council said there are procedural principles that should be in place to ensure that Pennsylvania's congressional districts are drawn through a fair and transparent process. Why is a fair process just as important as, say, a fair outcome?

Lee Ann Banaszak: I think they go actually hand in hand that we maintain fairness, not just by saying, “Oh, I will draw the map that everybody thinks is fair,” but also that people have input into the process. Because it's very difficult to draw the map from any one set of people. In part, because Pennsylvania is, again, diverse, and not everybody knows every part of the state.

So part of the transparency is twofold. One is that in a fair and transparent process, that citizens have input into the process and that the decision makers are listening to those citizens of Pennsylvania, but also that as decision makers say, this is the map that we have that we think is appropriate, that they explained their process, that they say, “This is how we made that decision. These are the sorts of things we considered. And these are the principles by which we use to create the map.”

It is as much the process of explaining the map as it is the process of creating the map because that is a process that is open and democratic in some senses, and it also guards against some of the worst things we see in gerrymandering, like incumbents protecting their own districts.

Min Xian: And one of the reasons why redistricting is such a thorny issue is that while most people would agree with principles outlined, for example, by council, each of us could be envisioning differently how those principles look like in practice. So in the process of attending the public hearings as part of the Advisory Council, have you seen that kind of different interpretation of the same principles materialize as people have the discussions about redistricting?

Lee Ann Banaszak: Yeah, I mean, I actually see quite a lot of agreement about the principles in public hearings, I mean, you see them also in survey results, that regardless of where you stand on the partisan divide, there are things that all of these citizens want. They want a map that is drawn impartially, and independent of the people who are going to hold the office; they want a map that has no advantage to one party or the other. And those are principles that I've heard throughout coming from a wide array of people.

You do sometimes see people who understand their communities best trying to articulate where their communities of interest lie. I have lived for a very long time in State College, but I found the public hearing in Mansfield, for example, really, quite helpful. I had not understood how wide the community of interest was for the people up in Tioga County, for example, that they have counties working together, and that splitting those set of counties apart also then affects their ability to represent their communities of interest. Likewise, I know Pittsburgh less well than I know Philadelphia. And I learned a lot about Pittsburgh in going to the public hearings there.

So it's not so much that I hear divisions or disagreements when I come from either the public hearings or the public comments, there's actually quite a lot of agreement on the principles and how the process should occur. Many people understand their area better than I understand it as someone who doesn't live there. But when a kind of push comes to shove, everybody's in agreement on what the basis should be, at least among the citizens of Pennsylvania.

Min Xian: If from your observation that a lot of the citizens can agree on the principles, where do you see the divergence, where do you begin to see the hair split?

Lee Ann Banaszak: Well, of course, the citizens of Pennsylvania have their influence only through the public hearings and through that sort of input. And I do think one problem that we have is that legislatures draw the maps in Pennsylvania. That's not true in many states around the United States. And one reason it's not is simply that in drawing the maps as a legislature, you have a particular interest in the maps.

So I do think there is a difference between the citizens of Pennsylvania and how they feel about the principles and then how the process works out.

Min Xian: This question follows what you're describing. One of the loudest calls from citizens is for the congressional and legislative districts to respect municipal boundaries. I attended the council's public hearing in State College, where a lot of residents pointed out that the State College area, including nearby Bellefonte, is often split to the detriment of this community's representation. They said the problem is a lack of understanding of local communities. Do you feel like that's a fair criticism?

Lee Ann Banaszak: I think that the criticism is fair, and it is one of the reasons that public hearings and public input are so important in the process. I do think that one of the concerns we have as we draw the map is that we – the tendency has been to focus on counties and municipalities. But in point of fact, many of the communities of interest really extend along past municipal boundaries.

So I live in the Borough of State College and less than five blocks from me begins Ferguson Township, right? And that is considered a separate municipality. But in point of fact, I happen to know that the State College Borough works with the townships around it to develop, kind of, common policy. And so it might technically fit that in drawing the map that you've preserved the Borough of State College, but it hasn't met the real kind of test, which is what is the community underlying that area.

Min Xian: And so if map drawers are to take this into consideration, do you think that would add a layer of complication to this already complicated process? Or do you think in some way it actually benefits the process?

Lee Ann Banaszak: I think it benefits certainly the representation of a diverse set of Pennsylvanians. Because what happens is that you have both rural communities that are split in this fashion, and you have municipalities or metropolitan areas split in this fashion.

I also think it really fits in with the meaning or the underlying values that were written into the state of Pennsylvania Constitution, that in saying that you should not split jurisdictional boundaries, but not specifying what those are, that to some extent, I think they left open what those future boundaries should be.

Min Xian: If you’re just joining us, we’re talking with Lee Ann Banaszak about why it’s so hard to agree on redistricting. Banaszak is the head of the Department of Political Science at Penn State and professor of political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. Most recently, she served on the Pennsylvania Redistricting Advisory Council.

So fair districting means defeating gerrymandering, where partisan legislators draw maps that keep them in power. So it's an issue about trust and confidence in government, when we think about redistricting. How is the current process hurting the citizens' trust?

Lee Ann Banaszak: I don't want to focus only on the hurt, I guess I would start there. So one of the really great things about the process this time around, I think, has been that on both sides of the aisle, there has been a recognition that citizen input is important. And also that citizen interest in what is going on is high.

To the extent there is a lack of trust in the process, I think it's inherent in how we have set up the redistricting process itself. Right? So, again, if you survey citizens of Pennsylvania, overwhelmingly all across the partisan divide, everybody believes that the best process is [an] independent citizens’ commission. Right? And, and so to the extent that people are concerned about the process, I think it's partially inherent in how we have built our institutions.

But I also see a lot of positive feeling about the process too, even as it has come to the point where the courts are involved. I do see citizens feeling that they've had more input than they have in the past, certainly compared to 2010. And I do see also citizens active in the process. And so to the extent that they are involved in the process and have some input, I think that also can be a positive side of things.

Min Xian: Like you mentioned, although our federal and state constitution grant the responsibility to the General Assembly for creating the congressional maps and to the legislative reapportionment commission for drawing state legislative maps, Pennsylvanians have in the past made it clear that they do want to have a greater say in how their districts are drawn, which includes creating an independent citizens commission. Do you support that idea? Do we have research evidence about how that improves the outcome?

Lee Ann Banaszak: It does improve the outcome. So one of the difficulties that legislators face as they draw their own maps is they are dealing with colleagues who are going to be affected by the process, they themselves are going to be affected by the process. So it is difficult to go into that process without having to deal with the political realities of the situation.

In most of the world, in many states, and increasingly in more and more states, there is the realization that you get a fair map if you take it out of the hands of the legislature.

Min Xian: There's not a lot of will in the legislature to do it. Is that the battle – where the battle lies in terms of potentially creating a commission like that?

Lee Ann Banaszak: Well, any change in our redistricting process has to come from the legislature. Absolutely. Is that a hurdle? That's a harder thing to say. Naturally, anytime you're introducing a new process into a legislature, or a new policy, that is a hurdle that you have to overcome.

Clearly, we've had over the past couple of years, a number of different attempts to create an independent citizens’ commission. And I emphasize the independent because that's also part of what citizens want, they want it separated out from the legislature. And those have stalled. So it is a difficult process. But it is the process that we as a democracy have, as well. Democracies are not easy in that sense. And they are messy. And that's part of the process.

Min Xian: And I am curious to hear you know what you think of redistricting, in terms of creating fair and equal representation. Why do you think it is so important in our kind of democracy?

Lee Ann Banaszak: I mean, at the basis of democracy, the basis of either a republic – some people prefer republic, some people prefer democracy – at the basis of that is this idea of representation, and representation that should be open to all of the citizens. And that was really a kind of an important part of our founding. It's why we didn't want to be part of Great Britain anymore a long, long time ago. And so obviously at the basis of all democracy is the sense of representation, that the people need to be part of the process indirectly through their representatives, by electing legislatures, and that really was part of the founding of the US as an independent country was this idea that representation is important, and representation of citizens interests are important.

Because districts are so important to our form of representation, the shape of those districts can determine whether people are included in the process or excluded from the process. So at its heart redistricting helps – is the kind of base for the representation process.

Connected to that, If you have a process where the people who are in power are selecting the districts, you've turned around that representation process. So what is the concern with redistricting where citizens aren't involved? It is that those elected in the offices then get to choose who their voters are instead of the other direction. And that would seem to really subvert that democratic process.

Min Xian: Yeah, and I have a related question about that. Most recently, January, on January 26, Governor Tom Wolf vetoed a congressional map sent to him by Republican lawmakers, leaving again the final say to state courts most likely. How is the court different than either the voter or the legislature? Because now that they're playing a role?

Lee Ann Banaszak: Well, actually, in point of fact, the system of checks and balances that we've set up in the United States does have an important role for an independent judiciary to step in if there are disagreements between branches of government. So this is part of the normal process. And in essence, also, where there is this tension about – between branches, that is the role of the judiciary to step in and really be a deciding factor. And in terms of having set up the democracy in a particular way, the Pennsylvania System and the US system are set up with that independent judiciary in mind.

Min Xian: In addition to serving on the Pennsylvania Redistricting Advisory Council last year, you had also been a part of the Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission in 2019. Has the discussion and attitude toward redistricting changed over the years that you have observed from being involved?

Lee Ann Banaszak: I think it has become a much more public process. And I do see that citizens are very mobilized and interested in the redistricting process. They see it as important. And for the citizens of Pennsylvania, they recognize how much is at stake. So I don't know that I've seen it between 2019 and 2020. But what I have seen as a continued kind of interest among citizens of both sides of the aisle, in making sure that the process is fair and transparent.

Min Xian: And you have, in this involvement, been in touch with the public, you have heard a lot from the public surveys or in-person hearings. Were there things that were surprising to you, that struck you that you took away, when you think about redistricting now?

Lee Ann Banaszak: I went into the process thinking that there were partisan differences and what people wanted in a redistricting process. And the one thing I came out of the process in seeing that, at least on the citizen level, citizens are very much in agreement on what they want from a redistricting process.

I also, I feel very honored that I've had the opportunity to really meet citizens from all across the state and to learn about their districts. I think the probably most surprising thing to me was learning about the different communities of interest that do exist in the state of Pennsylvania. And in some ways, recognizing that the boundaries that have existed as county boundaries are really not the way that many communities are working in many ways. So it was also thinking about the different communities of interest.

And I think finally, the diversity of the state of Pennsylvania in terms of who the citizens are and how it's changing over time, has been a really important part of the process.

Min Xian: Moving forward of thinking about redistricting and your past involvements in the past two years, are there new fronts of – about the discussion of redistricting, that you're paying attention to that you're thinking about? For example, if in the next 10 years, you're asked to help guide the process, again, are there new things, new ideas that you're thinking about?

Lee Ann Banaszak: Less new things than kind of emphasizing the things I think are important and get lost in the discussion. So I do think the recognition that principles are accepted across the board is really an important part of the process.

I do think about how the process could be improved in the state of Pennsylvania. So even though redistricting reform has stalled, or there's been a move away from thinking about citizens’ commissions that might be independent of the existing political institutions. I do hope that that continues. There is some really great work being done to incorporate citizens interests in redistricting across the state of Pennsylvania, Draw the Lines Pennsylvania where citizens can go in and draw their own maps. But also those reaching out to different communities, the Latino Latina community, for example, to get their voices heard in the process. There is some really great work being done there, too.

Min Xian: It has become a much more grassroots kind of political advocacy for a lot of people as far as I have observed.

Lee Ann Banaszak: Yes. And I'm very heartened by that, because I think it will be the best process possible to the degree that citizens are part of it. And that there is transparency so they can watch the process.

Min Xian: Lee Ann Banaszak, thank you so much for joining us on Take Note.

Lee Ann Banaszak: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Min Xian: Dr. Lee Ann Banaszak has been an advocate for redistricting reform and talked with us about why it’s so hard to agree on redistricting. Banaszak is the head of the Department of Political Science at Penn State and professor of political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

You can listen to more Take Note interviews on I’m Min Xian, WPSU.

Min Xian reported at WPSU from 2016-2022.
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